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Friday, June 20, 2008

Commentary: What Were They Thinking: Sheriff's Department Keeps Court Building Doors Locked

In a bizarre series of events on Wednesday, the man accused of killing Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy Jose "Tony" Diaz was arraigned and the media and public was locked out of the courtroom.

Later Sheriff Ed Prieto called it a mistake and blamed it one on his lieutenants. There was a high degree of security around the arraignment with the defendant arriving in bulletproof vest (ironically similar to one that Deputy Diaz was shot and killed through). And his family was also provided with high security.

According to Court Executive Officer Jim Perry, the closure occurred due to a mistake by the Yolo County Sheriff's Office.

Perry told the media:
"It was not intended that anyone was to be excluded. The court made no order to anyone to lock the doors"
Sheriff Ed Prieto told the media that someone:
"Forgot to tell somebody to unlock the doors... I think it was just an honest mistake, but somebody dropped the ball, and we should look into it."
How big a mistake was this? That's the real question. It was big enough that the Davis Enterprise which tends to be rather forgiving and deferent to law enforcement used the term "bungle" to describe the chain of events.

Judge David Rosenberg was quoted in the Sacramento Bee saying that the hearing should have been open to the public and the media.
"The doors are supposed to be unlocked when court is in session. This kind of hearing should have been open to the public. There are no excuses. It shouldn't have happened."
The Sacramento Bee went further, quoting several lawyers who had grave concerns about the proceedings, especially given the very personal interest that the Yolo County Sheriff's department has in this case, on the one hand, one of their colleagues is the victim of this horrific crime and on the other hand they are charged with providing security and enforcing the rules for this case.
Several lawyers said Wednesday night that for the trial to remain in Yolo County, the court system would have to appear more even-handed.

Stewart Katz, a Sacramento criminal defense and civil rights attorney, called Wednesday's events "flat-out wrong" and said the criminal justice system has to treat cases equally, regardless of the victims involved.

"You have a situation, obviously, where people are acting out of emotion," he said. "But it sends the wrong message to everyone. It undermines confidence in the system when you have people who are personally involved getting to decide how the system operates."
Sheriff Ed Prieto for his part promised that this would not happen again.

The good news here is that this was just an arraignment hearing and the Sheriff's department obviously got enough heat and criticism for their handling of this event that it will not, as the Sheriff promised, happen again. In terms of actual damage, this rates very low.

On the other hand, I do not think you can simply dismiss this as a mistake. It just happened to occur during proceedings that very personally affected the Yolo County Sheriff's office. No one can deny the horrific tragedy that occurred. On other hand, these are professionals and if they cannot fairly and properly administer their normal duties for this case, then maybe it should be moved to a different venue.

The fact that these "mistakes" just happened to occur in a case directly impacting the Sheriff's department does not pass muster. Fortunately, in the scheme of things this is not the biggest problem in the world, as long as it does not repeat itself. However, it does not seem reasonable that we can merely shrug this off as an honest mistake.

Frankly from the standpoint of their fallen colleague, this is the last thing that needed to happen. It took the focus off the horrendous tragedy and put it back on the Sheriff's department. It also makes us all wonder if this was merely a protection instinct on the part of grieving colleagues or is there something that they do not want the public to know. For the sake of decency, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt for right now, but the situation is no less troubling.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting